Authors: David Weir
To Emily, Ronie, Mason, Tillia and Jenny
‘Pity me not for my disabled state,
Nor think of me as less than what I wish to be,
My heart is beating now, at any rate,
And is a working part of who is me.’
ondon 2012 provided so many extraordinary moments and created so many heroes that it is almost invidious to focus on any individual athletes or their achievements. But David Weir’s four gold medals must surely stand out as one of the outstanding performances in a truly astonishing summer.
There are many cherished memories I take with me from London and they will not dim with time. One of them is the wall of sound in the Olympic Stadium when David hit the home straight in the 5,000m. That was as loud as anything I heard during the Olympic Games or any other sporting event I have been to.
And I was there on the Mall when he powered his way to that fourth victory in the marathon. As a former
runner I marvelled at his physical ability to win over such a range of distances, and at the accompanying mental strength. To win the 800m, 1,500m, 5,000m
the marathon is pretty exceptional. But to do it in front
of your home crowd in a home Games when the whole of the country is watching you and expecting you to deliver – well, that is unique.
I’ve sat with David after moments in his career when, by his own assessment, he has underperformed. It is to his eternal credit and the admiration of his peers that he has always regrouped and bounced back – but then David has the natural instinct of a winner, an ability to turn it on when it really counts. It is this quality that separates the good from the great, and David has it in spades.
Paralympic sport will never be the same again. Every day the Games set new records – whether for crowds,
audiences or for sheer spirit. In my closing ceremony address I spoke of how the Paralympians had lifted the cloud of limitation. No one summed that up better than David.
As with all the Paralympic athletes, he has not had it easy. As this book will show, he has been brave and honest about some of the challenges he has faced. But through sheer talent, hard work and determination he has not only overcome those challenges but managed to rise to the top of his sport.
His is a truly inspirational story.
he routine is always the same.
I wheel my day chair – the one I spend most of my time in – alongside my racing chair. Using both my hands I push down to lift my body up before swinging my legs across onto the frame.
I drop one hip, easing between the wheels. My legs slide down into the cage, tailored exactly to my measurements, and then I tuck them tightly underneath me.
With my knees resting on a solid metal plate and my feet settling into their pod, I take two small straps – one over the top of my thighs and a second over the back of my ankles – and yank them tight.
Click, click, click.
I ratchet another padded strap firmly across the small of my back and the chair grips me. I try and move but can’t. It’s totally secure, man and machine made one.
Now, with my lower half locked into position, I lean forward at 45 degrees and stretch out my arms. From
fingertip to fingertip my wingspan measures six foot two. It reminds me how tall I would be.
If I could stand.
With my arms stretched out I then lift my chin up and my head back, moving against the resistance created by my muscles. Until I hear it:
I then squeeze my shoulder blades until I hear the same noise explode from my spine:
Now I’m ready.
That morning I woke at eight. I tried to go back to sleep but it was no use. The adrenalin was already pumping. I lay there for an hour or so and then got up. I took a shower – in and out, no hanging around – and then flicked on the TV. I tried to do what I do every day. Problem was, this wasn’t any other day. This was the moment I had been waiting for all my sporting life. From the moment London won the Olympics and Paralympics in Singapore in 2005, everything had been leading to this. I kept telling myself it was only the heats. Day one. No sweat.
It’s funny how all the months of planning, the years of preparation suddenly feel woefully insufficient. I was in the best shape of my life but I still couldn’t escape the nerves. Every time I glanced out the window of my apartment
in the athletes’ village I got a jolt, a reminder of the size of the task that lay ahead, all the pressure and expectation. Everywhere I looked, bright neon-pink and purple banners fluttered with the 2012 logo. The sun was shining and although it was early the crowds were already streaming onto the Olympic Park. The excited chatter of expectation drifted across the yawning expanse of this corner of east London. Here it was – London’s Olympic and Paralympic dream made real. The curved roof of the Velodrome, shaped like a Pringle. The Aquatics Centre with those giant wings bolted onto the sides. The bubble-wrapped basketball venue, the Copper Box and, furthest away, the centrepiece – the Olympic Stadium itself. With its triangular-shaped floodlights perched on top of the roof it looked like a crown. For the next ten days this would be my stage. My home.
After the enormous success of the Olympics, everyone was wondering what the Paralympics would really be like. I kept reading about how the Paralympics was a sell-out, how there wouldn’t be an empty seat in the house. Until I actually saw it I didn’t want to believe it. I always hoped Britain and London would be different, that they would embrace us Paralympians. But I had been let down so many times in the past that I didn’t want to get my hopes up. That morning, watching tens of thousands of people descending on the Olympic Park, I finally believed it. Now I couldn’t wait for it all to start and to get in there and race. I just wanted to taste that atmosphere.
I had never enjoyed such a smooth ride into a major championships. There’s normally something that goes wrong – illness, injury or problems at home. For the first time, everything was perfect, and I was itching to get on the track and prove myself. I also felt confident – something I wasn’t used to feeling. That morning I bumped into Jonathan Edwards in the village. He would say to me later, after it was all over, that when he spoke to me he just knew I was going to do something special in the Games. He talked about a glow in my eyes and a level of physical fitness he just hadn’t seen before.
At that point, though, all I was thinking about was whether I would be able to eat something. I hate eating on the day of big races. My stomach feels like a washing machine on the fastest possible spin cycle. You know you have to get something down to keep you going, but it’s the last thing you want to do.
Feeling slightly peaky, I walked tentatively into the athletes’ food hall. The scale of the place always takes my breath away. There’s something here to tempt everyone – an aircraft hangar dedicated to the pleasure of eating. And top athletes need to eat a lot. It’s open around the clock and can accommodate 5,000 hungry athletes in one sitting. There’s a counter serving every type of food from every country imaginable. It’s like one of those shopping centre food courts on steroids. At one end there’s the giant, obligatory McDonald’s (they are Olympic and Paralympic sponsors) – and although we are all supposed to be
healthy-eating athletes, I was always surprised at how long the queues were!
This was no time for fast food, though. It would be hours until I raced my opening heat of the 5,000 metres so I needed to fill up on food with lots of energy. I ate a big bowl of muesli and then some bananas. There are always lots of bananas. I am also a big coffee drinker but it has to be dark and very, very strong. That’s where McDonald’s saved my life. Every morning during London, after I had eaten my breakfast I would head there for a double espresso. A lot of coffee lovers might find this hard to believe, but this was the only place on the Olympic Park where you could get a decent coffee. After the first, I would quickly follow up with a second to get the blood pumping.
I chatted to some of the other athletes as they ate their breakfast. I like to be around people. A bit of banter just helps take your mind off what’s coming later in the day. If you are stuck in your room, you think too much and that can destroy you. I headed back to my apartment block and went upstairs to see some of the other lads, have a chat with the Welsh guys like Aled Davies. We would play some video games, chat and watch the telly. Anything to distract me.
I called my coach, Jenny Archer. We both knew I was ready but I still needed to hear it from her again. I have known Jenny since I was nine. She is my coach, my
, my psychologist, my second mum. She said the same thing she always says before big races.
‘Do your own race, watch for crashes, watch for breaks and remember: stay out of trouble.’
I told her I was really nervous.
‘But Dave,’ she replied in that calming, measured tone she has. ‘You’re doing things I’ve never seen you do before. You’ve got nothing to worry about.’
My fiancée Emily was on the phone most of the time. She was also good at keeping me sane. She said, ‘Just do your best.’ I wanted to know what my little boy Mason was doing. He had just had his first birthday and even though the Games had only been under way for two days I had already been away for a while and was missing home. A bit of normality was exactly what I needed at that point.
My race wasn’t until 7.30 p.m. So I knew I wouldn’t be able to eat that night. That meant before too long I was back in the dining hall to have a big lunch – something healthy with loads of carbs. The problem for wheelchair racers is that once you are in your chair you are hunched down and everything gets very cramped. I find it incredibly uncomfortable. I have to eat at least three hours before a race. If I leave it too late I get heartburn or can’t actually keep it down.
Then there’s the beetroot juice – a whole litre of the stuff. The British team nutritionist had recommended it to me a year earlier. I couldn’t believe the immediate impact it had on my performances. It just gave me so much energy. I know it sounds disgusting but it actually tastes OK. But you mustn’t use it all the time otherwise your body becomes
immune to it. So I just planned to use it for the Games, a litre a day for the three days before a final. I honestly don’t think I could have contemplated going for four gold medals without the power of the beetroot.
I had already checked everything on my chair the night before but I still ran through it all again:
Bolts on the compensator (the device we use to direct the front wheel of our chairs during races)? Check.
Tyre pressure? Check.
Have I got my spare wheels for the track? Check.
I bundle up my little bag of tools, put on my Paralympics GB training top and head out of the apartment.
I got on the bus about 4.30 p.m. As it looped its way around the Olympic Park, past the Aquatics Centre, I rang Emily again.
‘Love, I’m absolutely bricking it,’ I told her.
I would like to have put it less bluntly but there was no getting away from the immensity of what was happening. This was the biggest time of my sporting career and I didn’t want anything to go wrong. I started to heave but I couldn’t actually be sick. My heart was pounding in my chest. I just wanted to get this heat out of the way and get to the final. Emily wished me luck and told me to just do my best. But what if my best wasn’t good enough? What if, what if?
I headed for the warm-up track. I always like to get there early to check out who’s at the British tent and to have a chat with some of the physios and doctors. I went to the toilet. A lot.
You see, once you are in your chair that’s it. You can’t go again until after you’ve raced and that can be more than three hours. It’s a hell of a long wait. That’s why I try to limit the amount of liquid I drink, but of course you have to be hydrated. It’s a real catch-22. Throw in nerves and I might as well just warm up in the loo.
Once I am strapped in my racing chair and have gone through the process of clicking my back and neck, I tape up my fingers with Elastoplast – it helps stop the blisters you get from hammering the push rims on the chair. It takes about five minutes and while I am winding the tape around and around and cutting it with my teeth I keep a watchful eye on that warm-up track. Who’s coming on, who’s hanging back? Which athletes are out early? I watch everything. I never rush onto the track. I like to try and psyche my rivals out.
I have another shot of beetroot and then I push myself onto the circuit. At first it’s just a steady eight to twelve laps. Maybe a few bursts of speed. I like to see who else is training and then I might go and sit behind them. Just to let them know I’m there. I really wanted to find Marcel Hug. A few years younger than me, he was one of my biggest rivals for gold. We race each other all the time. But on the warm-up track he always tries to avoid me. He doesn’t want to get involved in my mind games.
As I go round and round, the adrenalin is really starting to pump. I feel good. Off in the distance I can hear the roars from the stadium. Now I want this to happen. Now the nerves are starting to fall away.
Chantal Petitclerc is keeping an eye on the time for me. She knows what this feels like. Chantal won fourteen Paralympic gold medals in four Games for Canada and now she is here working with Paralympics GB as a mentor for the team. She gives me a ten-minute reminder. I drink some water and do a few more laps. Then five minutes. Bit more water, last few laps. Then the race is finally called. An announcer tells all the athletes for the T54 5,000m to group together at the side of the warm-up track. We are then led across to the stadium.
We wheel our way towards a long, covered tunnel that will take us across one of the various rivers encircling the island on which London’s shiny new Olympic Stadium sits. As we get closer I try and take it all in. The stadium reminds me of a spaceship. Above a section of the roof I see those unmistakable triangular floodlights and the giant screens showing the Paralympic flame burning. Multi-coloured lights are being projected on the huge wrap which covers the sides, throbbing and pulsing along with the noise of the crowd. It’s electric.
When the stadium was still being finished, I remember mentioning the need to make sure the entry tunnel to the stadium was covered. I think it was raining that day and I was probably thinking about the unreliable British summer but I was also thinking ahead to this moment. I knew then that I would want to slip into the stadium anonymously. I didn’t want anyone to see me before I got on the track. It would only add to the pressure on my shoulders.
Now we’re deep under the stadium next to the indoor warm-up track. Some of my rivals take the opportunity to fine-tune their preparations, one last chance to get the muscles working. But I don’t bother. I just sit there and wait. An official checks my bag, makes sure I haven’t got anything I shouldn’t have. No phone or iPod. I just have my bag of tools and some water. I go through my bag and pull out my tube of Glister – a glue I use to give extra traction on the push rims on the wheels of my chair. Rugby players use it too. Just to get a bit more grip.
At this stage you can’t really tell what’s going on above you. You can hear a few muffled cheers but you could be in a car park. Then a volunteer appears, carrying a wooden placard with our heat on it. We follow her back onto the concourse in the bowels of the stadium and around to where we go in. Now you can really hear the atmosphere. You can feel the noise.